February 25, 2018

Review | American Sniper by Chris Kyle

71bmwJ6z-LAfter reading American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, there’s no doubt in my mind that former U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is a patriot.

Beyond that, though, my feelings about the former soldier are less clear. To hear Kyle tell it in his memoir, he has all the ingredients of a patriotic American: love for country, God and family—and probably in that order, too. But the more I read Kyle’s story, the more complex he becomes.

Reading American Sniper, it’s obvious why Hollywood was able to make the memoir into a blockbuster movie. In addition to being the most effective sniper in US military history, Kyle has a talent for making already exciting stories about his time on the battlefield even more gripping. Kyle fought in some of the deadliest battles of the war in Iraq, from Fallujah to Ramadi. If even half of the stories he tells actually happened, he’s already done more than any big screen action hero can pretend to do.

Kyle has a combination of skills, temperament, and character that made him deadly to his enemies, but also left me equivocal about the impact of war on American soldiers.

Even as a fabulist, Kyle’s story as a soldier is a fascinating perspective from the front lines of American foreign policy. Further, because so many have seen the movie based on his book, his memoir could have significant impact on how Americans view the war in Iraq, for better or for worse. It’s that impact that has elicited response from across the celebrity spectrum, both in support and opposition to the movie.

As another soldier wrote, though, Kyle’s perspective of the war in Iraq is just that: a perspective. It isn’t a definitive analysis of the war, why we went, and whether we should have been there. It’s one man’s experience in war-time.

That said, the perspective is valuable and with such a small percentage of Americans signing up to serve in uniform, it’s a perspective that the rest of voting America might consider.

Throughout American Sniper, Kyle seems to struggle with polar aspects of his nature. On one hand, he is driven by a need to be heroic, acting on a sense of invincibility and taking a devil-may-care approach to danger. On the other hand, he truly believes that his cause is just, wants to protect his fellow soldiers, and return home to be a considerate father.

It was a struggle that his baser instincts seemed all too often to win.

Taya, Kyle’s wife, whose commentary is interspersed throughout American Sniper, tells Kyle that if he reenlists, he would be choosing the SEAL lifestyle over her and their family. Kyle acknowledges it. And then chooses the war and his fellow soldiers, anyway, heading back to Iraq to fight in Ramadi.

Returning home after his deployments was a trial and a hell for those around him, as well as for Kyle, too. And yet, Kyle says, multiple times, that he liked being a sniper and he liked killing the enemy. He considered them to be savages.

Killing a man is not, and should not be, an easy thing, and Kyle’s story demonstrates in high relief the conditioning through which soldiers must pass effective warriors. It changes them and the experience of becoming effective killers, necessary for war, continues to impact them even when they return home.

I’ve never served in the armed forces, but if I ever did, I hope the soldier fighting next to me is as effective as Kyle. Not only did he cover fellow soldiers under fire, he carried them out, too, protected them, led them, and brought them to safety.

But if the effects of war on the people who must fight it have ever been unclear, American Sniper paints a disturbing picture. The war is hard on Kyle, physically and psychologically, as well as on his family. His body gradually breaks down over four tours of duty. At home between deployments he struggled with road rage and night terrors. After he retired from the service, Kyle sank into depression, alcohol, and pain.

Multiply that by every veteran who was in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Relatively speaking, Kyle might be considered lucky. Rather than succumb to the death spiral of alcohol and depression, a near-death car accident leaves Kyle shaken and resolved to change. He decides to give back and starts an organization to help vets recover from PTSD. Ironically, it was in this cause that Kyle died, shot to death by a veteran suffering from PTSD.

From Seth Rogan to Bill O’Reilly, Michael Moore to Sarah Palin, it seems like everyone has an opinion on Kyle. To some he is a hero; to others, he is a cold-blooded killer.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. But that’s the nature of war, isn’t it? It’s not always clear-cut, and the demands we make on our men and women to kill or be killed changes them forever. If we’re going to support our troops, adjust our thinking about war, then understanding Kyle’s experience, as well as the experiences of so many others that serve, American Sniper is a helpful perspective.

About Daniel Burton

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas. He is active on social media, Republican politics, and has been named to PoliticIt’s list of the “Top-50 Utah Political Opinion Leaders” on Twitter. You can reach him directly at dan.burton@gmail.com

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